I don’t recall the setting, but tangerine trees and marmalade skies may have been involved. Talking to someone daunted by the extent of my blog, I was explaining the importance of learning to navigate (and I quote my oneiric persona verbatim):
It’s like when you go to a library, you don’t just wander around aimlessly, do you, the books are like, divided up—Real Stuff, Made-up Stuff, Hippy Bollocks, Medieval Albanian Dentistry, that kinda thing. There’s even a catalogue.
They seemed impressed. Not amused, just impressed. The clown shoes I was wearing were not remarked upon. No car chases, just classification—Story of my Life.
You can take this as a reminder to use the Categories, Tags, and Searchbox in the sidebar. But you don’t have to read it that way.
This is to direct you to yet another vignette on the ritual association of South Gaoluo, based on my detailed historical ethnography Plucking the winds. Focusing on the transmission of the vocal liturgy through the first fifteen years of Maoism and since the 1980s’ revival, my main purpose here is to illustrate the close relation of ritual and political authority both before and after the Communist revolution, with sketches of the vocal liturgists (“civil altar”) of the association, and their strong hereditary backgrounds, from the 19th right through to the 21st century.
The new page (to be read in conjunction with Two ritual leaders) features the great masters Cai Fuxiang, Cai Yongchun, and Li Wenbin, who steered the vocal liturgy through the early years of the revolution; and their young students from 1961 to 1964, Shan Mingkui, Shan Yude, Cai Ran, and Cai Haizeng, who have represented the “civil altar” in performing for funerals and calendrical rituals since the 1980s.
Do explore the wealth of further material on Gaoluo (as well as its tag) and the many other village ritual associations on the Hebei plain (main page here, articles under Local ritual)!
He uses them in the 6th symphony, most strikingly (sic) in the first movement, where they feature (along with celeste!!!) in a pastoral vision that suddenly interrupts the trampling jackboots—in my post, on Bernstein’s performance from 12.05, or on Barbirolli’s recording from 8.24. This brief refuge is itself brashly crushed (Bernstein 15.01).
In a later revision to the score Mahler added this typically generous instruction:
Die Herdenglocken müssen sehr diskret behandelt werden—in realistischer Nachahmung von bald vereinigt, bald vereinzelt aus der Ferne herüberklingenden (höheren und tieferen) Glöckchen eine weidenden Herde—Es wird jedoch ausdrücklich bemerkt, dass diese technische Bemerkung keine programmatische Ausdeutung zulässt.
—which, in the spirit of David Pesetsky, I’m tempted to translate as “inaudible”, only it’s a useful insight into his vision—notably Mahler’s final comment “this technical remark does not allow for a programmatic interpretation”.
Cowbells also appear in the slow movement and finale of the 6th. But Thomas Peattie (“Mahler’s Alpine journey”, Acta musicologica 83.1, 2011) unpacks their complex associations, refining the literal programmatic interpretations of critics, and noting that such apparently bucolic scenes are both fractured and fleeting: Utopia as an illusion.
Mahler used cowbells again in the 7th symphony: as this review tells us,
Tennstedt, in rehearsals for his last performances, was intent on showing his percussionists that cows would shake their heads violently and exhorted the player to shake the bell in just such a way (so good was his impersonation of a cow shaking its head, or at least so good was the orchestra’s reaction to it, Tennstedt did it again).
Cowbells also feature in Richard Strauss’s Alpine symphony. And they made a natural choice for Messiaen—part of his huge battery of tuned and untuned percussion, along with xylophone, marimba, woodblocks, and so on (not to mention piano and ondes martenot). Cowbells feature in a group of three wonderful works from the early 1960s: Sept haïkaï (with inspirations from gagaku and Noh!), Couleurs de la cité céleste, and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
La gaita: dance and festive music of La Rioja (Pan, 2000), with instructive liner notes by Ad Linkels.
It comprises vocal hymns and dance music from the fiestas of villages in La Rioja (the northern province of Logroño) for their local patron saints.
Short of being there, or watching video footage, as an aural portrait these recordings are highly atmospheric—with most tracks captured live during feast days, and most inclusive in showcasing the variety of the ambient soundscape. They hardly offer the illusion of listening as disembodied sound.
So the CD title refers to the whole festive soundscape, with its gaita dances (often using sticks, stilts and ribbons—cf. Morris) accompanied by small shawms (dulzaina, gaita) and tamboril drums. But the latter are only one element in the texture of the soundscape, which also features campanillas ritual songs of confraternities, punctuated by church bells and hand-bells; festive jota songs; castanets, and the chirping of caged birds.
Here it is as a playlist:
The CD includes extended sequences from three village fiestas: ##1–8 from Cervera del Rio Alhama (for Santa Ana and San Gil); ##13–17 from Anguiano (for Santa Magdelena), with twirling, perilous zancos stilt-dancing; and ##18–23 from San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
Here’s a video of the Anguiano stilt dancers:
San Vicente de la Sonsierra is also among many villages which hold self-mortifying processions:
And here shawms accompany giants at the nearby festival of Estella:
(many more clips under “Gaiteros de Estella”).
The region is also among many parts of Spain notable for a variety of bagpipes. For links to posts on shawms around the world (China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), click here.
Further to Why the First World War failed to end, the history of the chronically traumatised region of the eastern Bloodlands (see also here) makes a necessary counterpart to our British focus on the horrors of the Western Front. A fine recent vignette on World War One is
Alexander Watson, The fortress: the great siege of Przemyśl (2019, reviewed e.g. here).
It’s a detailed and readable account of extreme human suffering, quite overcoming my aversion to military history.
In the province of Galicia, soon after the Russian invasion and the fall of the capital Lwów (L’viv) to the east, Przemyśl—today in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine—became a crucial Habsburg stronghold.
With the Habsburg military operation headed by the reckless, inept General Conrad, the cowed troops who converged on Przemyśl on 14th September 1914 were already broken by defeat. After the field army retreated further, the inhabitants had to endure the Russian siege until March 1915.
Przemyśl was a multicultural city, with Polish and Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenian populations (respectively characterised by allegiance to Roman and Greek Catholicism), Jews, and Germans. Despite all the simmering tensions, they had somehow managed to coexist; with inter-ethnic antagonisms now sparked by international conflict, the war created flashpoints in a long-term clash.
As Watson observes, “the memory of the First World War is dominated by youth”. But the “ragtag garrison” left to defend Przemyśl was composed of a “dad’s army” of middle-aged reservists—including Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Italians, Poles, and Ruthenians. The gulf in class and culture between largely German- or Czech-speaking officers and this Babel of peasant soldiers was reflected in problems of communication.
Most widely mistrusted by the Habsburg command was the local Ruthenian population, suspected of Russian sympathies. The peasant population in the villages had largely been evacuated, their homes brutally demolished, but many returned, unable to survive in squalid refugee camps; others had never left. Now, trapped in the starving purgatory of no man’s land, they found themselves vulnerable to both armies.
Within the fortress itself, violent repressive measures were taken against potential traitors such as Ukrainian nationalists and Greek Catholics, with deportations and executions.
The Russian army too was diverse, with Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Romanians alongside people of various ethnicities within the Russian empire. But the Russians had their own agenda of ethnic cleansing, aimed in particular at growing Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, and at the Greek Catholic church.
And the whole region already had a history of anti-Semitic violence. All these enmities came to a head in World War Two under the genocidal policies of ruthless totalitarian states.
In the ravaged countryside around Przemyśl, the fortress was guarded by an outer perimeter of forts, whose defences are described in great detail, with their “gloomy subterranean tunnels and low-ceilinged chambers”, places of terror; out of dysfunctional pyrrhic resistance, heroic legends were concocted.
The following chapter-headings flag the sequence of events: Storm, Barrier, Isolation, Starvation, Armageddon—subsuming epidemics, starvation, stress disorders, fear of espionage, desertions, executions; changing technologies (not least in weapons of war), and a thriving (and class-based) sex trade. Diversion could even be found in cultural events such as cinema and concerts. As morale continued to plummet further, officers indulged in obscene banqueting.
Watson cites a bitter joke from Przemyśl:
Q. What is the difference between Troy and Przemyśl?
A. In Troy, the heroes were in the stomach of the horse, and in Przemyśl the horses are in the stomach of the heroes!
With no hope of relief, the end came in March 1915 upon the inevitable failure of a breakout—in the utterly deluded direction of the east. Here’s footage from the end of the siege:
And the recapture of Przemyśl in June 1915—with the soundtrack perhaps inadvertently mocking pretensions of imperial grandeur and their appalling consequences:
Still the terror continued. Prisoners were deported to camps in Turkestan and Siberia, the foundations of the Soviet gulag system; already exhausted, many died in captivity. The Russian vendetta against the Jews intensified.
After Przemyśl was recaptured by the Habsburgs, it passed to the new independent Polish republic, under which antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians escalated, and Jews continued to be scapegoated.
Though the rival Habsburg and Russian empires soon fell, the violence, poisoned by an endless thirst for revenge, “persisted, mutated, and further radicalised”—culminating in the ethnic cleansings of World War Two, outlined in Watson’s Epilogue, “Into the dark”. Under successive Soviet and Nazi occupations Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples—and the whole of the Bloodlands—fell victim to unimaginably brutal atrocities. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing continued even after the formal end of the war in 1945 (see e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent, ch.18).
Today, bands like Krajka are rediscovering the traditional music of the region:
And Przemyśl is among many towns all along the border with Ukraine whose people are offering a welcome for refugees.
* * *
Watson laces his disturbing account of barbarity with black humour—like the ludicrously complex choreography of the three-part ritual that troops were expected to perform as a recognition system while patrolling no man’s land, which “would have been funny, had it not put lives at risk”.
Such tragic absurdities may remind us of Jaroslav Hašek’s The good soldier Svejk and his fortunes in the World War (1921–23—see under Czech stories).
Volume 4 (unfinished on Hašek’s death) evokes the ignominious dénouement of Švejk’s involvement in the Galician campaign. Out of curiosity he dons a Russian uniform that he found by the lake, whereupon he is seized by a gendarmerie patrol as a fugitive prisoner of war. He is then classified as a Russian spy and escorted on foot from Dobromil to Przemyśl—a fiction later commemorated there more readily than the realities of the siege.
Illustration by Hašek’s friend Josef Lada.
Hašek himself served with the Habsburg army on the Galician front. Captured by the Russians, he went on to work, quite commitedly, with the Bolsheviks. For a “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”, his brief Soviet career was remarkably exalted ( see Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan). He commanded Chuvash troops in the Red Army and served as commissar of Bugulma in Tatarstan (which inspired stories translated in The Red commissar). In Siberia he found himself the “hero of the Buryat nation”; he was learning Chinese, and wiki also mentions a “mysterious mission to Mongolia”. He returned to an independent Czechoslovakia in 1920.
In the novel, Hašek’s comments on the ineptitude of the Habsburg command are echoed in Watson’s portrayal of General Conrad—who, “never a man to permit reality to interfere with his plans, insisted on having his horse and eating it”.
Meanwhile, Švejk meets his fellow prisoners:
The Russian prisoner looked at Švejk in full understanding of the fact that he could not understand a single word of what he said.
“No understand. I Crimean Tartar. Allah achper”, the Tartar said. Then he sat down, crossed his legs on the ground, folded his arms on his chest and began to pray, half in Russian and half in Tartar. “Allah achper, Allah achper—bezemila—arachman—arachim—malankin mustafir”.
“Well now, so you’re a Tartar, are you?” said Švejk with compassion. “Well, you’re a fine customer then! How could you with your double-Dutch be expected to understand me then and I you, if you’re a Tartar? […]
Švejk turned to another prisoner:
“Are you a Tartar too?”
The person addressed understood the word Tartar, shook his head and said half in Russian: “No Tartar, Circassian, Circassian born and bred. I chop off heads!”
It was Švejk’s luck that he found himself in the company of these various representatives of the Eastern peoples. The transport comprised Tartars, Georgians, Osetins, Circassians, Mordvins, and Kalmyks.
As Hašek’s fine translator Cecil Parrott observes, “I know of no novel which conveys so poignantly not only the ugliness of war but the utter futility of anything connected with it.” I may not be alone in needing to re-read the book with a clearer picture of the tragedy that pervades it.
This post leads from the ridiculous to the sublime, so don’t despair.
Courtesy of slippedisc.com, here’s a challenge to the imagination: on 2nd January 1952 the sculptor Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav and Alma, appeared as a contestant on the Hollywood radio quiz show You bet your life, with GrouchoMarx as host. Not just OMG, but
It epitomises the Chinese expression kuxiaobude 哭笑不得, which is somehow more expressive, more versatile, than “not knowing whether to laugh or cry”. Anna tries her luck over the first 11 minutes here:
Undeterred, whether desperate or legally bound (both Anna and Groucho were struggling at the time), she came back for more the very next day for the TV version; thankfully it doesn’t seem to appear online—though in a masochistic kind of way, that too would be hard to resist.
The life of Anna Mahler (1904–88; see also here and here) was just as eventful as that of her mother Alma. Anna’s older sister Maria died in 1907 aged 5; her father in 1911, aged 50; and her half-sister Manon Gropius (the “angel” to whom Berg dedicated his exquisite violin concerto) died at the age of 18 in 1935.
Anna’s first two marriages, to conductor Rupert Koller and composer Ernst Krenek, were short-lived. Having trained in painting, by 1930 she gravitated to sculpture.
After another divorce, she fled the Anschluss in 1938, living in Hampstead and marrying conductor Anatole Fistoulari; their daughter Marina was born in 1943. Following the war she made a home, without her husband, in California, before divorcing yet again in 1956. She returned to London after Alma died in 1964, going on to live in Spoleto from 1969 and taking a fifth husband. She died while visiting Marina in Hampstead in 1988; you can read Ernst Gombrich’s address at her funeral here.
Anna’s father had been fêted in New York, both as conductor and composer, from 1908 to his death in 1911—Groucho, then in his late teens and making his way in vaudeville, could even have attended his concerts. Still, by 1952 he could be forgiven for having but a sketchy awareness of the composer’s towering work—it was some years before the craze for his music that took off in the 60s, often associated with Bernstein and Barbirolli (besides Mahler tag, more links here).
Like Harpo, public persona aside, Groucho was thoughtful and cultured: normal conversation between him and Anna might have been urbane. It’s the superficial format that reduces the encounter.
On the show, although Groucho would already have had background on his guests, he does at least sound suitably impressed to learn of Anna’s parentage and Viennese background, trying out his “old-world charm”. While he doesn’t do his Margaret Dumont routine on her, his badinage almost rescues the occasion: it would have been even more cringeworthy with Yer Average vapid quiz-show host quipping his way through such ritual exchanges. Anna puts on a brave face, right up to Groucho’s final question “What kinda fruit do you use in a peach pie?”
All this was long before politicians learned that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, submitting to ritual humiliation by trying in vain to Get Down with the Kids (think Anne Widdecombe, George Galloway—actually, no, don’t).
And it almost makes the various Monty Python spoofs (like this, with Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao struggling over questions on football and pop music) seem perfectly plausible.
Apart from her stone sculptures, Anna’s work included busts of Berg, Schoenberg, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter, as well as Schoenberg’s death mask.
So as an antidote to You bet your life, we can recover with Anna’s exquisite 1954 film A stone figure (do watch here), made over several months, in which she not only provides the instructive voiceover but also plays Bach for the soundtrack—somehow one feels a deep connection with her father (for his relation with Bach, see here).
As usual (cf. OMG), the usage goes back a long way—in this case to at least 1798. But more recently it is the Americans who have clung to the meaning of “soon”. The discussion also mentions “momently”, also early but now obsolete.
As many observers have commented, for Brits new to flying in the States it’s most disconcerting to hear the pilot announcing “We will be taking off momentarily”; since one hopes that having achieved altitude we might be able to remain airborne for quite some time, one surely expects a rather more upbeat prediction. At the other end too, Dick Cavett’s comment
When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?”,
inspires a brilliantly pedantic thread, which needn’t detain us here.
I also support the objection that “momentarily” sounds like “an attempt to be fancy” [Objection sustained—there’s another thing we don’t get to say over here].
Anyway, I’m always glad of an excuse to cite Airplane. For a fine mid-air tannoy story, click here; for further divergent US/UK usages, here, here, and even here; see also And I’m like.
This, from BBC news only last week, was suspiciously prophetic (reporter waiting round dark corner with baseball bat):
Diego Maradona is to have emergency surgery caused by a head injury in the next few hours.
Tanya Talaga, All our relations: indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (2020),
based on her 2018 lecture series. Talaga, a journalist, had to rediscover her Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. Whereas Shkilnyk’s book on GrassyNarrows is a detailed ethnography of the sufferings of one small community, Talaga extends her scope to the wider fate of indigenous peoples in north America and around the world—including the Inuit, tribal groups in Brazil, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Aboriginal people in Australia. I’m also reminded of the fate of ethnic minorities in the PRC such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.
Talaga opens her account with the high incidence of suicides—particularly of children—in the territories of NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation), a group of forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario. From 1986 to 2017 there were over 558 suicides there; 37 people took their own lives in 2017 alone. The problem was common throughout First Nation bands in Canada, notably among the Inuit, where the suicide rate is ten times the national average.
Left: Inuit demonstration, c2018 Right: Sami climate strike joined by Greta Thunberg, 2020.
Nearly one in three Sami have thought about or attempted suicide. In Guarani-Kaiowá in southwest Brazil, the suicide rate is 34 times higher within indigenous communities than among the non-Indigenous population. In Australia too, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for all Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 34. Meanwhile incarceration rates are far higher than in the general population.
Talaga puts all this in the context of the global search for justice, civil rights, and freedom—subsuming environmental protection, housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and access to clean, drinkable water.
She sketches the painful colonial histories that have led to the ongoing plight of these peoples: genocide, disease, treaties betrayed, multi-generational trauma, discrimination, suppression of identity; residential schools and churches, constant official prevarication and obstruction.
As she notes, all this is strongly reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa. She cites Martin Luther King:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.
Against the legacy of the residential schools, the “lock hospitals” of Australia, and segregated hospitals in Canada, Tanaga meets fine community leaders striving to redress injustice, themselves mostly survivors of the residential schools.
Yet despite the involvement of such enlightened figures and social scientists, a plethora of institutions—themselves responsible for much of the trauma—have been quite unable to tackle such problems, and are widely distrusted.
With a long succession of decrees falling far short, protests have been frequent for many decades. Despite the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline from 2016, construction has resumed under Trump, with his contempt for the environment.
Tanaga suggests that while education has long kept people in ignorance, it can now play a major role in alleviating the situation.
Here’s one of several of her talks to be found online:
* * *
While expressive culture may seem a cruel irrelevance in all this, it was precisely the forced removal of these people from their cultures that led to their sufferings.
As project leader Murray Schafer observed, “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”. Prescriptively, the series warns against “the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity”.
Innovative and well-meaning as the series was, it appears as a “back to nature” project, and “what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include”. The recordings largely ignored urban soundscapes: “Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk”.
Also largely absent are the First Nations and its “visible minorities”. “Their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot”, dismissing
a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “re-education” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools”. […]
If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.
Of course, the “traditional”, and changing, cultures of indigenous cultures have also been a popular subject; what is at issue with this series is how they are kept separate, marginal. And it’s very common for a project to be less all-embracing than its title suggests (e.g. “Singers of the world“, “British music”, Punk).
As long as we bear this in mind, it’s quite natural to focus on a particular area within a culture; with the bolder aim of encompassing the soundscape of a whole culture, however, one has to be more inclusive.
Another post on the site explores the “hubbub” of First-Nation healthcare in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, and the film East Hastings pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012):
For Sami musical culture, we might start with the article “Sámiland: joiks of the tundra” in The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Among recordings of traditional song, Yoik: a presentation of Saami folk music comprises 3 CDs with a 310-page book. And here’s the playlist of the 1956 Folkways album Lappish joik songs from northern Norway (liner notes here):
In Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the cant d’estil are short festive songs sung on the street and on procession. My baroque gigs there have coincided with a couple of processions to the cathedral, but I’ve never managed to hear cant d’estil live. What I did pick up, though, was
Antologia del cant Valencià d’estil1915–1996,volumes XXV–XXVI (!) of Fonoteca de materials of traditional Valencian music,
a 2-CD set with 192-page booklet by Jordi Reig in both Valencian [related to Catalan] and Spanish, containing 59 pieces by 46 singers; the erudite notes (with photos, transcriptions, analysis, and English summary) consider (quite limited) musical change over the 80-year period.
And cant d’estil is the subject of yet another fine CD by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, assisted by Vicent Torrent, compiler of the Antologia:
Espagne, València, cant d’estil, joutes chantées(Ocora, 2005), with recordings from 2003—here’s the playlist:
Of the two main genres,valencianes are accompanied by guitarró, with wind bands providing formulaic punctuation; albas are framed by dolçaina small shawm and tabal snare-drum. The songs themselves are more florid and free in tempo than the rigid, banal instrumental sections—the two seem in deliberate conflict; even the fandango strummings of the guitarró serve merely to offset the rhythmic freedom of the singing.
Within a framework that seems based on “art music”, there is considerable latitude in both texts and melody. The creation of songs, with llisteros and versadors whispering in the singer’s ear to prompt themes, may remind us of the garapoetica “poetic jousts” in Sardinia. Both men and women sing in the same range, the former in a “forced” high register.
The brief lyrics are not just traditional, but also cover charmingly topical themes:
I ask the crowd here assembled To give a thought To whether the powers that be Will ever find a solution To the parking problem.
Others seek to do little more than introduce the band (cf. Sgt Pepper):
Today the wind section Are all here Toni on the powerful trombone Tico on the trumpet And Casar on the clarinet.
Among many YouTube clips, this sequence, from 9.14, after the opening speeches, shows the prompters:
And pursuing my drum-and-shawm theme around the world, having featured a Catalan group here, here’s the Valencia tabal and dolçaina combo that frames alba songs (featured on the Antologia, and #13 of Bernard’s CD):
Along with the first flush of the liberal reforms that attended the collapse of the commune system, the classic feature films of the 1980s’ “fifth generation” were part of a widespread flowering of the arts, overturning the “socialist realism” of the Maoist era.
There’s a wealth of academic and media coverage, but here I’ll make a little selection of some films—just the Usual Suspects, for those already in the know—that explore the lives of ordinary people (both rural and urban), including their folk music. Often set in the barren landscapes of rural Shaanbei and Shanxi, several of these works use amateur actors—always a good sign. Some are verité depictions of the early reform period itself, while others are set in the Maoist and pre-Liberation eras, but they were all important in helping revise our image of China. Of course, as fieldworkers we hope to document all three periods.
A seminal film from the early days was
Yellow earth (Huang tudi 黄土地, Chen Kaige, 1984). Set in the Shaanbei base area during the War against Japan, exemplifies the travails of early CCP folk-song collectors (cf. Hequ 1953) as they were confronted by the poverty of rural China, and the vast cultural gulf separating them from the peasants they were seeking to rescue from “feudal superstition”. It’s framed by the opening wedding scene, and the final rain ritual:
Old well (Laojing 老井, Wu Tianming, 1986, with Zhang Yimou)  is based on a poor village’s struggle against constant drought. One well-observed vignette (from 1.20.19) features a village story-telling session with blind musicians, and the peasants’ taste for “dirty songs” licensed by a token politically-correct speech (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”):
Despite the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, this wave persisted into the early 1990s. A timeless, mystical story of a rural blind bard in a stunning landscape is
Life on a string (Bianzou bianchang 邊走邊唱, Chen Kaige, 1991):
In more verité style, filmed in rural and urban Shaanbei, is
The story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi 秋菊打官司, Zhang Yimou, 1992), surely Gong Li’s greatest and most uncharacteristic role as a sullen, aggrieved, confused peasant, a far cry from her standard fragrant image—with the street scenes particularly authentic, and a soundtrack punctuated by gutsy wanwanqiang singing by Li Shijie 李世傑 (sorry, no English subtitles here):
*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*
In my earlier post on rag Yaman I focused on dhrupad, so that by the time I reached the sitar I contented myself with the great Nikhil Banerjee. Thanks to Daniel Neuman we can now admire versions by some other masters.
Vilayat Khan (cf. his rāg Malkauns here) gave a classic exposition in 1968, accompanied by Manik Rao Popatkar:
Dispensing with alap, he launches into a leisurely gat in 16-beat tintal, with 1st-beat cadences often falling on Ga. He plays mellifluous phrases in even quavers, as in the extended passage from 4.59, and again from 9.54 and 10.40, with easy syncopations. Moving on upwards, patterns revolve around cadences on Pa from around 11.56, Ni from 13.37, top Sa by 16.01, but still often balanced by cadences on Ga, with top Ga from 17.45, and a flow of gorgeous melodic phrases from 18.04. In the final section from 19.17 he sets off again in the middle register, soon leading to faster patterns, with bursts of energy punctuating the metre.
From 23.46 he begins another gat, still in tintal. From 33.58, great syncopated energy around phrases setting forth from sharp MaPaMaPa lead to a fast drut laya from 38.57, always firmly melodic.
And here’s his younger brother Imrat Khan on surbahar (bass version of sitar) in 1974:
As on the rudra vina, the glides are most affecting. Even the high passages from 23.33 are full of rhythmic creativity.
Here are both brothers in duet:
On sarod, click here for Ali Akbar Khan in 1982, and here for Amjad Ali Khan. For a version on shehnai, see Raga for winds. For the related rāg Maru Bihag, click here.
Just one single rag generates such a wealth of melodic creativity…
For a roundup of other posts in this series, click here.
Smile was first heard as the romantic orchestral theme in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin”.
It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.
Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:
So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.
It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue; see also Unpromising chromaticisms), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:
Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):
Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.
* * *
One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):
So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.
Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:
A Buddhist monk called Miaoyin 妙音, “Wondrous Tones”, is associated with transmissions of the grand shengguan suites that have punctuated the vocal liturgy of amateur village ritual associations around Xiongxian county in Hebei since the late 18th century (see also under Local ritual).
Hannibal Taubes, ever on the trail of recondite historical byways, leads me to Gadgadasvara, a minor-league figure among the great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Since his name literally means “stammering tones”, even if he’s an imaginary being, he may appear to be a promising early Indian candidate to complement my list of great Chinese stammerers—and a musical one, to boot (see also stammering tag). But there are several strands to unravel here, both for ancient India and late-imperial China.
emits rays of light from his topknot and between his eyebrows and illuminates the world of the Buddha Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña [Kevin for short—Ed. Try saying that with a speech impediment]. […] Gadgadasvara passes through many worlds, and his beautiful form is described. He arrives at Vulture’s Peak Mountain on the seven-jeweled platform and presents a necklace to Śākyamuni Buddha, inquiring after him on behalf of Buddha [Here we go again—Altogether now] Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña. * (source here).
Modern bronze image of Gadgadasvara, Nepal.
Svara is not just “sound” or “voice”, but the comprehensive system of musical pitches as represented by sargam solfeggio (see e.g. here). Sources do indeed allude obliquely to Gadgadasvara’s mastery of music:
In the worlds through which he passed, the land quaked in six ways, seven-jeweled lotus flowers rained everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly musical instruments sounded spontaneously without being played.
Still, musical accomplishments play only a minor role in his transcendent CV:
According to T’ien-t’ai’s Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva is called Wonderful Sound because he propagates the Lotus Sutra throughout the ten directions with his wondrous voice. Among the many sutras, Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound appears only in the “Wonderful Sound” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
And he doesn’t seem to be among the numerous cosmological deities who feature in the rich mythology of Indian music.
As to gadgada, the etymology of stammering, faltering, even sobbing, is clear. However, there seems to be no suggestion that the Bodhisattva was ever actually portrayed as a stammerer. Moreover, would any Indian, now or at any earlier point in history, be conscious of the etymology? Instead, the name has long been interpreted as “Wonderful Voice” or “Wonderful Sound”, and that is how it was rendered in Chinese.
So alas, Gadgadasvara is not an ancient mystical precursor of the characters listed here. In short, neither stammering not music make fruitful avenues to explore! Aww.
Conversely, Moses (like Marilyn Monroe) has been widely recognised as a stammerer, although the evidence is open to dispute (see e.g. here and here). The image on the left (from the latter article, p.169) shows the ancient hieroglyph for “stammer”!
In medieval Chinese translation, Gadgadasvara became Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—which seems a faithful rendition of how the Sanskrit name has been understood.
After that inconsequential excursion to the ancient world of scripture-revelation, let’s return to our musical monk in Qing-dynasty Xiongxian county. It remains to be seen how distinctive it was for a monk to be given the name Miaoyin. For the double-character names chosen for Buddhist and Daoist clerics, either the first or second element was stable within each generation (cf. Customs of naming), and miao 妙 was often adopted for the first; the second character yin 音 seems less common than sheng 聲 (sound)—such as the cohort of young monks at the Guangji an temple in Beijing in the 1930s (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.223).
Anyway, even if Miaoyin received his early ritual training in Beijing before being deputed to staff a rural Hebei temple, such occupational “musical monks” (yiseng 藝僧) performing rituals around the old city were most unlikely to be familiar with the Lotus sutra, which is not among the ritual manuals that they performed—so our musical monk clearly wasn’t named after Gadgadasvara.
Still, while he would have been utterly remote from the abstruse concerns of ancient Buddhist cosmology, the prelude to the Hanzhuang score does indeed describe him as “Chan master Miaoyin, Wang ‘Bodhisattva’ Guanghui” (妙音王菩薩光輝禪師)—the honorific “Bodhisattva” suggesting his local reputation.
Anyway, do get to know the wondrous tones of the shengguan ritual suites attributed to Miaoyin, still being performed by ritual associations in Hebei villages (cf. ##8 and 14 of playlist in sidebar, and for the process from singing the oral gongche to instrumental performance, ## 9 and 10—with commentary here)!
Long story short: like “And did those feet in ancient time?“, my title seems to resemble those questions they ask you at airport check-in—to which you’re pretty sure the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes just in case.
* I don’t mean to labour the point àlaStewart Lee, but in search of wisdom, I find this helpful explanation:
The Sanskrit term Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña can be transliterated into English as Kamaladalavimalanaksatrarajasamkusumitabhijna or Kamaladalavimalanakshatrarajasamkusumitabhijna.